Rudi Lewis talks to Beauty Papers about why the industry is becoming increasingly out of touch and what we can do to challenge the norm.
Hair stylist Rudi Lewis began his career in a little salon in his hometown of Clydebank, washing hair and “giving all [his] friends dodgy haircuts” before moving to London. He spent the 90s running a salon in Covent Garden and “DJing at raves and clubs when [he] wasn’t cutting hair”. Along the way he met Eugene Souleiman, who invited Rudi to assist him on Hussein Chalayan’s S/S 1999 show. “It just fried my brain – the artistry, the intellect, the passion. That was it; I was hooked,” says Rudi, looking back.
After working with Souleiman for a few years, Rudi decided to go it alone, and ever since he has worked on countless editorials and international catwalks. He has contributed to Interview, Love, V and i-D, among others, and collaborated with photographers such as Mario Testino, Paolo Roversi and Alasdair McLellan. Nowadays Rudi splits his time between New York and Stockholm, where he set up a studio. Beauty Papers caught up with him recently and talked disposable perfection, impossible ideals and the need for backlash.
We have a responsibility to challenge the norms; the reason why the 90s has become so referenced is because it was the period when the visual language of the time was more diverse, creative, less about wealth, status and beauty norms. I think we are at that crossroads again.
Beauty Papers: How do you approach your craft? Do you have an ideal that you want to project?
Rudi Lewis: Having been a hairdresser for 25 years now, there’s just so much that is instinctive to me – it becomes second nature. But the danger is that you can become complacent; you get used to turning up to shoots and just making the hair look cool, or beautiful, or whatever is asked of you. I found myself getting on a plane all the time, and running around chasing “success” defined by which brand’s campaign [I was] doing, or which top glossy [I was] working for. I recently scaled back for a few months to catch my breath, and see if I could challenge myself to pursue an aesthetic direction that made me feel fulfilled solely on the basis that I enjoyed the process, and the result was beautiful to me. So I got myself a little studio in Stockholm, where I live, and began to work on things with a longer gestation period – headpieces and sculptures that I’ve been documenting with a view to maybe exhibiting at a later date. It’s refreshing researching materials that aren’t really hair-related, and playing with different skills that aren’t instinctive. It’s inspiring to learn new things again.
Where do you get your visual inspiration?
Everywhere! I’ve always been interested in subcultures and street style and all the tropes that go with that, but I’m also educating myself about other worlds, like the art world, which had always previously eluded me. When I meet people in real life, they always think I’m judging their hair or appearance, which couldn’t be further from the truth; I’m actually staring at some imperfection or quirk and thinking, “Man, I’m so stealing that.”
What is your idea of beauty?
The courage of our own convictions is the most beautiful thing any of us has.
Part of our identity is formed and shaped by how we look. What is your opinion on the message presented in the industry regarding beauty?
The message is looking increasingly out of touch, the very term “the industry” tells you all you need to know. Alongside this new wave of photographers and designers challenging the status quo, we’re seeing an increase in diversity and visibility along racial, gender and sexuality lines, mainly as a result of the activism of a few and the demand for it from society at large, but there’s a long way to go. There’s so many crazy things going on in the world right now that the fashion and beauty industry has been looking increasingly out of touch and insular. We have a responsibility to challenge the norms; the reason why the 90s has become so referenced is because it was the period when the visual language of the time was more diverse, creative, less about wealth, status and beauty norms. I think we are at that crossroads again.
We live in a media age where our visual landscape changes in seconds. What effects do you think this has had on artistry and has this changed your approach to your craft?
I spent a bit of time in New York, which is a very commercial environment, and that way of working lends itself to this kind of “disposable perfection”, as I like to call it. Digital photography sped up the process of producing images and the tendency of clients and magazines to chase “perfection” has culminated in this situation where there’s no time or space to play with ideas, try things, make mistakes. So, yes, I think it has had a negative effect on artistry, because we are forced to compete for attention, but rarely have the time to create great work. Or even worse, great work doesn’t even get noticed in the deluge of disposability. I think we are seeing the backlash to this in the work of young photographers and designers coming out of London and Berlin, and other margins of the fashion industry. They’re shooting film to regain control of the image-making process and reject this commercially-driven perfection ideal.
What are your goals for the future?
I just want to make beautiful images with people I respect, go to work with people who love what they do and are doing it for the right reasons. I seem to be going through a period of reinvention; all of a sudden there’s been this huge resurgence of interest in my work in Europe and London. I guess sometimes you have to go away in order to come home again.